Bilingual Doesn’t Mean Bicultural

There are more differences between us than language

Some years ago, my husband and I were travelling by train in Europe and barely caught the one that was taking us to Paris, so we had to walk through several cars to get to our seats. The first four were full of people from Germany, Holland, England and France and there were some persons talking in soft voices, reading, eating a snack or sleeping. The passengers in those cars didn’t even look at us.

The fifth car was a noisy one and soon we would learn that the rest of them were the same. I know this sounds like a cliché, but it is not. A large Italian family was travelling in that car and as soon as they saw us, they said hello and someone asked us where we were from. When we said we are Mexican, they invited us to join them and started to share what they were eating and drinking.

Later, some Spaniards and three Argentinians joined the group and soon we were all discussing hotels, restaurants and places to visit or not to visit. We are still in contact with some of them, although we have not seen but three of them since then.

The trains in Mexico haven’t changed since Porfirio Díaz (at the beginning of the 20th century), although politicians talk about creating a very necessary new train system for the whole country. But years ago, many of us travelled by Mexican trains and the experience was very similar to that in Italy.

We Mexicans would usually start our trip without knowing anyone in our car, but in a couple of hours everybody was talking to everybody as if we were old friends. You didn’t really become friends with them, but you had a good time while going from one place to another.

Something like that can happen to you anywhere and you’ll have to realize two things: in Mexico staring is not necessarily considered bad manners; Mexicans usually stare a lot more than people from Anglo Saxon or European countries. They will also ask you personal questions not to pry, but to show interest in you.

We Mexicans tend to smile and laugh a lot. Our culture is noisier than others and this sometimes bothers people from other countries. The problem is that we think that if we are happy, everybody will be happy too, which is not necessarily true.

When you go to a fast food restaurant or cafetería in the USA or in other countries where they have similar facilities, you will see small tables and chairs fixed to the floor. Very often you can see two or three persons eating by themselves, each one in his/her own table. They never look at each other, much less talk among themselves.

When you go into a Mexican restaurant you will never see fixed tables or chairs. Our tables are always ready to be reorganized because families tend to be large and we all want to sit together.

When we go into a taquería or cafetería and we see someone sitting by him/her self we usually say hello and, often, we will say something else not necessarily to start a conversation, but just to let the other person know that we saw him/her.

But let’s not fool ourselves, here we are not talking about tables and chairs, we are talking about life concepts.

Fast food restaurants are related to a culture that eats to live: food is already prepared, the menu is limited and you can order your food without going into the restaurant. You pay before receiving your food. Salt, pepper, sugar, catchup or mustard come in individual packages and customers throw their own disposable plates, cups and napkins in a large garbage can.

In Mexico we live to eat. We love eating and talking while we eat. We usually ask the waiter how are such and such dishes prepared and it may take a while to order.

In the USA when you are invited to a party, the invitation says: “From 5:00 to 8:00” and ten minutes before 8:00, everybody starts thanking their guests and saying goodbye. In Mexico we could never do that because people wouldn’t understand it.

We go to a party to talk to people we like, so when you invite someone, they feel they can stay until they want to and they usually do. Asking them to leave would be an offense and they would be sentidos.

And the verb sentirse is a very delicate one in Mexico. Sentir means to feel, but sentirse means to feel someone mistreated you even if he/she didn’t realize it. I promise I will write about sentirse next time because it is rather complicated. So complicated that it can sometimes be comical or absurd, but it can’t be ignored because that would cause rather serious problems.